Radiation for health and happiness :

Jacob Schor

May 20, 2007


Homemade radioactive tonic water:

In the early 1900s, the Revigator Company of San Francisco made and sold thousands of ceramic water dispensers lined with radioactive material. The people who bought these Revigators believed drinking radioactive water would be good for them.  Thanks to e-bay, I am not the proud owner of my own mint condition 1927 Radium Ore Revigator.  Having just hit the confirm button on PayPal to pay for this sought after antique, I must ask myself, have I lost my mind?


From the outside a Revigator looks very similar to the dispensers we now use for bottled water. There is one crucial difference. It is lined with carnotite, a uranium ore that emits radon gas at a steady rate as a decay product of the uranium.


Instructions printed on the side:  "Fill jar every night. Drink freely . . . when thirsty and upon arising and retiring, average six or more glasses daily."


The radon produced by the radium in the ore dissolves overnight in the water. In effect, as the advertisements once stated, the Revigator served as a "perpetual health spring” in the home. With my Revigator, I can drink all the homemade radioactive water I could desire.


Have I lost my mind? Have I fallen under the spell of radioactive quack cures?


Radioactive Cures:

A century ago, medical devices relying on new found properties of electricity, magnetism, and radioactivity were manufactured and sold as promised miracle cures.  Most have disappeared, remembered only in obscure museums of medical quackery as ineffective and harmless.  Except for the radiation therapies that are remembered as ineffective but dangerous. At least according to modern medical though which holds that all radiation no matter how low the dose, is dangerous. Recent research suggests the opposite may be true; we may have to change our minds and admit that low dose radiation is both an effective therapy and safe to use.  The history behind these radioactive therapies is interesting, especially to those in our profession. The idea that radiation is good for health developed from several different tracks. First, hydrotherapy and nature cure:


Healing Waters

The idea that water, especially water emanating from certain natural springs has healing power is not new and certainly should resonate with most naturopaths, even our more resent graduates. History provides many examples of sick people traveling to various ‘waters' seeking cures. Whether Bath in England , Badgastein in Austria , or Hot Spring here in our country, people go and soak in the waters for their health. Today people unquestioningly pay exorbitant amounts to drink water imported from exotic locations.

In the United States , the most famous waters are probably those at Hot Springs , Arkansas . In 1832, Congress established the Arkansas Hot Springs as the first federal reservation which later evolved into what today is our National Park System. So valued was the healing effect of these waters that the military established the Army and Navy General Hospital at Hot Springs in 1879.


In 1903, Nature published a letter from J.J. Thompson, best known as the fellow who discovered the electron. Thompson wrote that he had found radioactivity in well water. Scientists quickly confirmed that the waters in many of the world's most famous health springs were noticeably radioactive. This radioactivity is due to the presence of a, ‘radium emanation,' what we now call radon gas, produced by the radium that is present in the ground that the waters flow through.


The immediate assumption was that this radioactivity was responsible for the curative properties of the waters. Medical experts of the time displayed unrestrained enthusiasm. The Surgeon General, Dr. George H. Torney, wrote (ca. 1910), "Relief may be reasonably expected at the Hot Springs in . . . various forms of gout and rheumatism, neuralgia; metallic or malarial poisoning, chronic Brights disease, gastric dyspepsia, chronic diarrhea, chronic skin lesions, etc."


Or, take the letter of Dr. C.G. Davis, published in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine in which he wrote, "Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life."

The Radium Ore Revigator was invented by a R.W. Thomas and patented in 1912 and was clearly designed and advertised to capitalize on the demand for radioactive water. People who owned Revigators could make healing spring water in their own home in unlimited quantities. Several hundred thousand Revigators were sold, a remarkable number when one considers their price. They sold for $29.50 in 1929.


Revigators water dispensers were only one of countless products marketed in the early 1900s to dispense radiation for its curative effects. Radioactive toothpaste, undergarments, refrigerator deodorizers, were all the rage.


The public enchantment with radiation ended abruptly in 1922 when Eben Byers died.. Byers was a celebrity, a millionaire steel tycoon, a sportsman and the U.S. amateur golf champion. On the urging of his physician, he started drinking a radioactive bottled water called Radithor. Byers was convinced it gave him "zip" and often drank a few of the 2.2-ounce bottles daily. At $1.00 each, one had to be a millionaire to afford such a habit. He drank close to 1,400 bottles between 1928 and 1930 before dying horribly in 1932 of radium poisoning at the age of 51. Suddenly the American Medical Association took a stand against all radiation unless it was administered by an MD.


Knowledge of the healing powers of low dose radiation was pushed into obscurity. People who talked about the benefits of radiation were mostly nut cases who also told you about UFOs.


When less is more:

Part of the reason that radiation became so popular was that the idea that low dose toxic exposure could have a health stimulating effect was widely accepted at the turn of the century. Those of us who still practice homeopathy may recall the Arndt-Schulz law.

Hugo Schulz's work in the late 1800's is usually considered the first reported demonstration of low dose effects, having a significant and opposite effect to high doses. This effect is now referred to as hormesis. Actually Rudolf Virchow, the man medical text books call the father of cellular pathology, was actually wrote about the phenomenon of hormesis in 1854. [i]


Whoever was the first is not relevant. What is important to understand is that in the later decades of the 19 th century, this was a widely accepted idea and subject to significant research. Back then, most research focused on low dose chemical stimulation and the effect on plant and fungal growth.


“In fact, prior to 1900, the general belief had emerged in the realm of chemical toxicology that low doses as a general rule had the capacity to stimulate, while higher doses would inhibit the activity. This so-called truism became referred to as either the Arndt-Schulz Law or Hueppe's Rule as a result of Hugo Schulz's research on chemical stimulation of yeast metabolism and Ferdinand Hueppe's research on chemical stimulation of bacterial growth” [ii]


The concept of radiation hormesis followed that of chemical hormesis, obviously waiting until x-rays, radium and uranium were discovered in the 1890's. The early 1900s saw numerous papers published on the positive stimulatory effects of low dose radiation on plants, fungi, mice and insects.


The Arndt-Schulz Law often mentioned in homeopathic courses pretty much defines hormesis, a term that did not come into use until 1943 when Southam and Erhlich made up the name. Hormesis specifically refers to the beneficial and immune stimulatory action of low doses of toxic substances, usually in reference to low dose radiation.


Association of the Arndt-Schulz Law with homeopathy doomed hormesis. Even though distinguished researchers were publishing outstanding research in the early 20 th century,

“the area of low dose chemical stimulation was to become the object of intense criticism… ……This criticism was to have its origin in the fact that this area of research was too closely allied to the controversial medical practice of homeopathy. The area of chemical hormesis had become used as an explanatory factor by advocates of the medical practice of homeopathy.…..the concept of hormesis, especially chemical hormesis, became a cultural victim of guilt by association with homeopathy. This marginalization was encouraged by traditional medical philosophy because of the long standing antipathy with homeopathy…… it was only natural to ….lump hormesis with homeopathy and the marginalization was complete.” [iii]



Radon Mines

The radon mines of Montana make up the third piece of this historic puzzle, and should be familiar to those of us practicing in the mountain west. The best known of the radon mines are in Montana ; the Merry Widow and the Earth Angel mines in Basin, and the Free Enterprise and Lone Tree mines in Boulder . These two small towns are located a few miles apart between Butte and Helena on Interstate 15. People travel great distances and pay to breathe the radon gas that occurs naturally in the mines

The benefit of inhaling radon gas was supposedly discovered by accident in 1950. The story goes that a California woman suffering from arthritis accompanied her husband, a miner, to the Free Enterprise uranium mine. Following her visit, she claimed to find freedom from her continuous pain. She told a friend, who also reported relief from arthritis pain. More visitors came as word spread among chronic pain sufferers. Life magazine sent a reporter and photographer to investigate the claims. Their story, "Stampede of Pilgrims" to the mines of Boulder and Basin, did indeed spark a stampede of thousands of visitors to the health mines.


Websites from the mines provide and endless testimonials and links to the science on the benefits of Radon therapy.


Arthritis is the most common malady of people seeking relief in the radon mines, according to Dwayne Knutzen, owner of the Merry Widow. According to Knutzen,
"Arthritis is the big one, but anything to do with the immune system," he said. "When you get older, your immune system starts to shut down. This (radon) stimulates those cells and gets them going again. So your body starts to heal itself. We have people come for multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, asthma, even fertility if you can believe it." [iv]



Radiation Hormesis

I first read of radiation hormesis last winter when Science News published an article by Janet Raloff, one of my favorite writers.


Raloff opened her feature article on hormesis by stating:

“For decades, researchers largely assumed that a poison's effects increase as the dose rises and diminish as it falls. However, scientists are increasingly documenting unexpected effects—sometimes disproportionately adverse, sometimes beneficial—at extremely low doses of radiation and toxic chemicals.”


Raloff writes about radiation, pointing that despite the well-known danger of radiation overexposure.

“…… a growing body of animal data now indicates that lower radiation exposures can defend against cancer-inducing biological changes. Conceptually, it's analogous to a vaccine.”


These days the term hormesis is used to describe the process by which “a compound at high doses has an inhibitory—and generally toxic—effect on some biological process but the opposite effect at certain low doses.”


In her article, Raloff mentions several recent studies on the effect of low dose radiation.


First, she described the work of Leslie Redpath of the University of California , Irvine . Redpath reported that cells exposed to less than 0.1 Gy of radiation were less likely to “spawn tumors” than were cells receiving either higher doses or no radiation.


Then Raloff describe the research of Brenda Rodgers from Texas Tech University . Rodgers left mice in cages in a Ukrainian forest about a mile from where the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred 18 years ago. She left them there until they got a cumulative radiation dose of about 0.1 Gy. Once the animals reached the 0.1 Gy dose, she brought them to her lab and quickly bombarded them with 1.5 Gy. This big dose created only about half the number of chromosome breaks in the mice pre-exposed to low dose radiation compared to the mice without the pre-exposure. Raloff's analogy that low dose radiation exposure acted like a vaccine against high doses is good.


Low dose exposure apparently reduces damage even if it occurs after the large dose. Tanya Day of Flinders University , Australia , gave mice a 1-Gy dose of radiation. Four hours later, some mice received a second, far smaller dose. Rodents getting both doses developed only half as much DNA damage as mice that just got the large first dose. In fact, the mice that got the low dose had less damage than a control group of mice receiving no radiation at all. [v]


A recent PubMed search on the term radiation hormesis reveals 143 papers. Most support the premise that low dose radiation is beneficial.


For example, a mouse study published in December 2006 demonstrated that low dose pre exposure protected the brain from subsequent high dose exposure. [vi] A Japanese paper from September 2006 suggests that low dose radiation triggers a ‘radiation adaptive response' that stimulates certain “bioprotective functions, including antioxidative capacity, DNA repair functions, apoptosis, and immune functions…..” [vii] An October 2005 paper reported on an ‘intensive analysis of immune cell populations' in mice exposed to low level radiation found, “Chronic low-dose-rate radiation activated the immune system of the whole body.” [viii]


An excellent article appeared in the January 2005 issue of the British Journal of Radiology, which you can download free. [ix] The authors describe a dual effect seen with low dose radiation. They point out that there is a low chance of DNA damage from radiation that increases in proportion to the dose. This DNA damage is “orders of magnitude lower than the damage from endogenous sources, such as reactive oxygen species.” At the same time, there is another effect providing adaptive protection against DNA damage. This adaptive protection prevents DNA damage, stimulates DNA repair and immune activity. This protective reaction begins hours after exposure and, “may last for days to months, decreases steadily at doses above about 100 mGy to 200 mGy and is not observed any more after acute exposures of more than about 500 mGy.” These protective effects far outweigh the damaging effect of low dose radiation.


Reviewing their data, the writers concluded that:

“…. the linear-no-threshold (LNT) hypothesis for cancer risk is scientifically unfounded and appears to be invalid in favour of a threshold or hormesis. This is consistent with data both from animal studies and human epidemiological observations on low-dose induced cancer. The LNT hypothesis should be abandoned and be replaced by a hypothesis that is scientifically justified and causes less unreasonable fear and unnecessary expenditure.”


The most comprehensive published reviews in the medical literature are by Calabrese and Baldwin from the University of Massachusetts . [x] [xi] [xii] Many of their excellent papers can be downloaded free.


Reading about all of these things has been interesting intellectual ride. Certain people I have met, proponents of radiation hormesis are adamant that it is a cure for cancer. I cannot tell you if they are right or not at this point. I can follow their logic and consider them rational and not nut cases. Theoretically, I can extrapolate from animal research to imagine potential uses for Revigator treated water. Radiation gastritis is the first condition that comes to mind, then ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease as close seconds. What has intrigued me the most though, are not the potential therapeutic uses but the theoretical explanation of how radiation hormesis works. This provides an intellectual framework from which I can view the other traditional nature cures that we still use or have used in naturopathic medicine.


Recall the idea that radiation hormesis is an adaptive response. The cells sense the damage caused by the radiation and compensate to protect themselves. In the case of low dose radiation, the cells overcompensate, over react to the actual damage inflicted. This overcompensation reduces total genetic damage to levels lower than pre-exposure. This overcompensation balances the immune function and calms inflammatory tendencies. The organism over compensates against a stressor and in doing so becomes healthier.


This same description works for so much of what we do or did traditionally: hydrotherapy, fasting, sun bathing, exercise, and saunas could all be described as harmless stressors that trigger an adaptive response that overcompensates.


I do not know whether low dose radiation triggers a more profound adaptive response than these other traditional nature cures. It is certainly possible that some of these cures unknowingly expose the patient to low dose radiation through the natural spring waters they traditionally used. More likely, they all trigger unique responses that vary with the nature of the stressor.


Whether or not you are ready to have your patients drink radioactive water, my hope is that viewing naturopathic therapeutics as the intentional stimulation of over compensatory adaptive responses brings a new and useful perspective to your practice.




[i] Henschler D. The origin of hormesis: historical background and driving forces. Hum & Exper Tox (2006) 25:347-351.

[ii] Calabrese EJ and Baldwin LA. Tales of two similar hypotheses: the rise and fall of chemical and radiation hormesis. Human & Exper Tox. (2000) 19, 85-97.

[iii] Calabrese EJ and Baldwin LA. Tales of two similar hypotheses: the rise and fall of chemical and radiation hormesis. Human & Exper Tox. (2000) 19, 85-97.

[iv] State of mine: Many swear to benefits of inhaling radon
By DARYL GADBOW of the Missoulian

[v] Jan. 20, 2007 ; Vol. 171, No. 3 Science News Counterintuitive Toxicity

Increasingly, scientists are finding that they can't predict a poison's low-dose effects

Janet Raloff

[vi] Zhang H, Liu B, Zhou Q, Zhou G, Yuan Z, Li W, Duan X, Min F, Xie Y, Li X.

Alleviation of pre-exposure of mouse brain with low-dose 12C6+ ion or 60Co gamma-ray on male reproductive endocrine damages induced by subsequent high-dose irradiation.

Int J Androl. 2006 Dec;29(6):592-6.

PMID: 17121657 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

[vii] Yakugaku Zasshi. 2006 Oct;126(10):827-31. Links

[Biological responses to low dose radiation--hormesis and adaptive responses]

[Article in Japanese]

•   Sakai K.

[viii] Int J Radiat Biol. 2005 Oct;81(10):721-9. Links

Activation of immunological network by chronic low-dose-rate irradiation in wild-type mouse strains: analysis of immune cell populations and surface molecules.

•   Ina Y,

•   Sakai K.

[ix] Br J Radiol. 2005 Jan;78(925):3-7. Evidence for beneficial low level radiation effects and radiation hormesis.

•   Feinendegen LE.


[x] Hum Exp Toxicol. 2000 Jan;19(1):41-75. Links

Radiation hormesis: its historical foundations as a biological hypothesis.

•   Calabrese EJ,

•   Baldwin LA.

[xi] Hum Exp Toxicol. 2002 Feb;21(2):91-7.

Defining hormesis.Calabrese EJ, Baldwin LA.

[xii] Mutat Res. 2002 Jul;511(3):181-9. Links

Hormesis: changing view of the dose-response, a personal account of the history and current status.Calabrese EJ.